Zookeeper and Animal Trainer

Zookeeper and Animal Trainer

LisaAnnOKane

Tampa, FL

Female, 32

During my zookeeping and environmental education career, I have interacted and worked with a variety of animals, including brown bears, wolverines, red foxes, moose, camels, mountain goats, dolphins, sea lions, raccoons, porcupines, snakes, raptors and ravens. I am also a young adult author, and my debut novel ESSENCE was released in June 2014 by Strange Chemistry Books. Ask me anything!

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Last Answer on September 18, 2015

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How many animals are there in a typical zoo, and how many people are needed to take care of a zoo this size?

Asked by Royce over 5 years ago

I wish there were a simple answer for this question, but there is so much variation between zoos that it's nearly impossible to make a generalization. In terms of staffing, it is also important to take into account what kind of animals each facility has. (Two elephants require way more trainers than 10 turtles, for instance.) Off the top of my head, I know that the San Diego Zoo (a very big and impressive facility) has more than 4,000 animals, but the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago has more than 32,500. Many of the Aquarium's animals are tiny invertebrates and fish, so the number doesn't tell you nearly as much as you would initially think. Using specific examples from my background, I have independently cared for about 25 animals during one shift. Some of these animals were small and easy like baby quails, but some were big and high-maintenance like eagles. I worked in another facility where 15-17 dolphins were taken care of by 6-9 trainers, so staffing definitely depends on the specific animal species. It also depends on each zoo's vision and approach to behavioral enrichment and training. (The more staff we have on hand, the more time we can dedicate to the "fun stuff" like making enrichment for our animals and leading training sessions!)

What animal are kids usually most excited to see?

Asked by catherine over 5 years ago

Elephants! And big predators like polar bears or tigers or sharks. Also, who can resist a dolphin or a sea lion? I suppose a better answer would be that it really depends on the child. Some kids freak out over petting zoo animals, while some love aviaries where little birds land on their heads. Stereotypically speaking, though, my opinion would be that the biggest animals tend to be the biggest draws. Maybe kids just like to be humbled, or maybe it's hard for them to comprehend how big an animal actually is until they see it? Hard to tell, I guess, but the elephant line always seems to be the longest... ;)

Did you hear about the guy who jumped into the tiger pit at the Bronx Zoo? Not that I'd ever do that, but is the best thing to do in that situation just to play dead?

Asked by Ted about 5 years ago

What a crazy story, right? I am continuously amazed by the people who make these decisions. I feel like you would have to be delusional or very, very troubled to actually assess this situation and make the decision to "become one with the tigers." (I can't, of course, speak for this particular man or his particular motives. It's impossible to accurately judge someone without walking in their shoes, so I will try my best not to make sweeping generalizations. I am just extremely bothered by the fact that this man's self-destructive behavior put both him and the tiger at risk.) In all honesty, there isn't much hope for you if you jump into a tiger enclosure. These are powerful, instinctual, apex predators, and every fiber of their being is tuned into capitalizing on their prey's mistakes. They are also lightning fast, and they make kills very quickly and efficiently. However, just for the sake of argument, I believe the best approach when dealing with big cats is to NEVER curl into the fetal position or play dead. This sometimes works with startled bears, but it simply signals an easy meal to big cats. If you encounter a big cat in the wild, the best idea is just to stay calm and hope the animal doesn't see or become interested in you. If it does, speak loudly, raise your arms and try to scare it away. (Big cats are notoriously shy, so this may actually work.) If the animal refuses to leave (which is way more likely in a zoo setting), you should never turn your back or try to run, because this will incite the tiger's natural chase instinct. Tigers also tend to go for the head and throat, so protect your neck and strike at the animal's face, using anything you can grab as a weapon. In all likelihood, of course, you're a dead man if you don't get some assistance from the tiger's zookeepers. This is how the man at the Bronx Zoo survived. The tiger's keepers managed to keep their cool and distract the tiger before anything too tragic happened. The man looks like he will recover, and the tiger is fine, too. This is the best news of all, because nothing upsets me more than when animals get punished for simply acting on their natural instincts. Kudos to the amazing staff at the Bronx Zoo for averting this tragedy with levelheadedness, skill and precision!

This is gonna sound cold, but why do people freak out so much about endangered species? I mean, if it's an animal that's absolutely critical to the environment, I guess I understand, but would we really be worse off without pandas, for example?

Asked by Sully over 5 years ago

Definitely a valid question, and one I'm sure others wonder about as well. I think the answer depends on your personal definition of the phrase "worse off." From a strictly evolutionary perspective, species like pandas, tigers and polar bears wouldn't have survived this long if they didn't serve a purpose in their environment. Many are indicator species and apex predators, so the health of their entire ecosystem is often mirrored by their personal health. (For example, the loss of polar bears in the Arctic wouldn't just affect polar bears. It would affect arctic foxes, seabirds, walruses, seals, fish, krill, plankton, plant life, etc. If you remove one link in the chain, the entire chain is altered.) That being said, is the entire Chinese ecosystem going to fall apart if pandas are removed from it? No. Probably not. In many cases, humans have altered the environment so drastically that many endangered animals are no longer capable of even surviving in it. So, one could argue that the loss of certain species is just a byproduct of our quickly advancing society. Progress is progress, and sacrifices must be made. This is certainly a valid argument, and I understand why some people feel this way. My personal opinion, though, is that some things have an intrinsic value that can't so easily be quantified. I believe humans--as this planet's apex species--have a certain responsibility to look out for other species. We must particularly protect those species whose survival has been directly threatened by our own personal advancement. Perhaps the responsibility is empathetic; perhaps it is philosophical or ideological. Regardless, I often think of Lyndon B. Johnson's quote: "If future generations are to remember us with more gratitude than sorrow, we must achieve more than just miracles of technology. We must also leave them with a glimpse of the world as it was created, not just as it looked when we got through with it."

Are a lot of people in your line of work vegetarian/vegan, given that they work so closely with animals day in and day out?

Asked by m0ng00se over 5 years ago

Awesome question! There are definitely some, but I'm actually surprised there aren't more. Instead, it seems like many of the zookeepers I've worked with have grown this bizarre tolerance to all the gross raw meat and nastiness they have to handle on a daily basis. Many can even take a fecal sample and then roll right into eating a hamburger. (After hand-washing, of course!) The one exception to this is marine mammal trainers. They handle so much raw fish that most of the ones I know gag at even the thought of sushi!

Can lions or tigers be domesticated? I've seen footage of people keeping them as pets - sweet as they seem, couldn't those animals snap at any minute?

Asked by C-Moz72 over 5 years ago

Hi C-Moz, you've hit the nail on the head. I highly discourage people from keeping any exotic animals as pets, but I PASSIONATELY discourage people from keeping big cats as pets. Illegal pet trade and animal welfare issues aside, domestication is a process that takes hundreds--if not thousands--of years of selective breeding. In order for an animal to be truly "domesticated," its natural instinct to fear humans must be completely bred out. (See my answer for the "dogs vs. wolves" question on this page for more info about how domestication works.) That's not to say a wild lion or tiger CAN'T be trained to safely--and sometimes affectionately--interact with a human. This happens frequently in zoos and wildlife rehabilitation centers all across the country. The difference is that these animals are so powerful, instinctual and unpredictable that I believe they should only be trained by knowledgeable animal care professionals. Professionals are also WAY better equipped to deal with the enrichment and animal care issues that come up with these animals. Invariably, many of these so-called "pets" end up dumped in shelters or euthanized, and many don't get nearly the exercise or care they need. (See my answer to the "animals not commonly kept as pets" question on this page for more information about this.) Again, I'm not claiming the care of a lion or tiger by a private individual is IMPOSSIBLE; I'm sure many people keep big cats without incident. I just know that I personally wouldn't even feel comfortable keeping a big cat as a pet, and I AM an animal care professional. Better safe than sorry, you know?

Are camels particularly friendly animals, or do they have a temper? What would they do if they felt scared or threatened?

Asked by CNHolmberg over 5 years ago

Hi Charlie! You are in luck, because the "animal love of my life" happens to be a huge Bactrian camel named Knobby. (He lives at the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage, and he LOVES visitors!) I didn't know too much about camels until I started working with Knobby, but I sure became an expert quickly. I learned that camels (especially male camels) can be incredibly ornery. They can also be very dangerous, and some people die from camel attacks every year. When camels feel scared or threatened, they generally spit, stamp their feet and swing their heads. They attack by trampling and even crushing, and males grow very long incisors they use for fighting. Now, I don't want to suggest camels are blood-thirsty killers or anything. They are just HUGE, and they are incredibly powerful. Males can stand more than seven feet tall at the hump, and they can weigh more than 2,000 pounds. I would probably stereotype a camel's disposition as similar to a donkey or llama--although individual camels obviously vary as widely as humans. Camels are also very smart, and they can be trained to be great companions if you are focused and dedicated. Speaking from my experience, I began working with Knobby when he was only six months old. As he grew, he began spitting and charging and generally being terrifying. It got to the point where I didn't even feel comfortable going in his enclosure with him. (One time, he even cornered and trapped me behind a gate, and it literally crossed my mind that he may kill me.) Instead of giving up on him or reverting to the old methods of negative training, I began doing positive reinforcement training with him through his bars. After many, many, many months of hard work, I was able to not only enter his enclosure with him, but to lead him through a variety of complicated commands, including sitting on command, rolling on his side, presenting his feet for inspection, wearing a halter and letting me to sit on his back. As time passed, he grew to be my very favorite animal, and I grew to be his favorite human. He ran over to me whenever he saw me, and he cried his head off whenever I left. We had an amazing relationship (and I still miss him every single day), but I never grew complacent with him, because I knew I always had to respect his strength. Even when we were in the middle of our training sessions, I always had an escape plan in the back of my mind. And whenever he got too excited, I always cut our training sessions short. Better safe than sorry. ;)